According to this CNN report, the House Ways & Means committee, which had previously requested President Trump’s tax returns pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6103(f), has now issued subpoenas to the Treasury Department and IRS for the same information. Although the committee believes that it can sue to enforce the statutory duty to provide information under § 6103(f), it was advised by House counsel that issuing subpoenas would bolster its case in court.
There are interesting questions about the scope of the committee’s authority under § 6103(f), which we have previously discussed, and whether the issuance of subpoenas will help or hurt the committee’s chances in court. However, what I want to highlight now is an issue that may be more consequential than these. According to CNN, the speaker is considering whether to authorize a civil action to enforce the subpoenas (and, presumably, the committee’s statutory right of access) through the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, rather than a vote of the House. Back in February, I raised the possibility that language added to House Rule II(8)(B) in the 114th congress could be used in this fashion.
The new language in question provides that “[u]nless otherwise provided by the House, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group speaks for, and articulates the institutional position of, the House in all litigation matters.” There are two potential problems with using this language to allow BLAG to authorize a lawsuit by the Ways & Means committee. The first is that the language does not explicitly authorize BLAG to initiate litigation on the House’s behalf. The purpose of the rule change was “to conform to current practice.” As explained in my February post, this referred to the practice of BLAG intervening in existing litigation to defend the constitutionality of statutes (in particular, the Defense of Marriage Act) the Justice Department refused to defend. There was not, and as far as I know has never been, a practice of BLAG initiating litigation.
There is a second problem with respect to litigation to enforce subpoenas. House Rule XI(2)(m)(3)(C) provides “[c]ompliance with a subpoena issued by a committee or subcommittee . . . may be enforced only as authorized or directed by the House.” This provision seems to override Rule II(8)(B), which only applies “[u]nless otherwise provided by the House.” One would have to argue, somewhat circularly, that Rule II(8)(B) allows BLAG to authorize or direct subpoena enforcement on behalf of the House, in order to prevent Rule XI(2)(m)(3)(C) from overriding Rule II(8)(B). I am somewhat skeptical that the parliamentarians would agree with this argument, but . . . (this is where I would insert the shruggie emoji if we were on Twitter).
In any event, if BLAG claims the authority to authorize subpoena enforcement actions, this could improve the efficiency of the “subpoena cannon” considerably. On the other hand, it will almost certainly lead the minority to challenge both BLAG’s interpretation of the rules and its decisions to authorize particular actions on the House floor.